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208                                                                                B- POLEVOI
Piqued by his companion's scepticism, Vitamin said to
him challengingly:
"If you like, I'll ask him. Think I'm afraid? Want to
bet?"
He detached himself from the rest and sidled up to
Meresyev, slowly, cautiously, ready to dart away in an
instant, like "Submachine-Gunner" on the hospital win-
dowsill. At last, standing strained, hunched like a runner
on the mark, he ventured to ask:
"Comrade Senior Lieutenant, what kind of feet
have you got, real ones or wooden? Are you an in-
valid?"
The small boy saw the airman's eyes fill with tears.
Had Meresyev jumped up and yelled at him and gone
for him with his funny walking-stick with the gold letters
on it, he would not have been surprised, but to see an Air
Force lieutenant cry! He did not so much realise as feel
in his little heart the pain he had caused this soldier with
the word "invalid". He silently drew back into the crowd
of children, and the crowd vanished as if it had melted
away in the hot air that smelt of honey and heated
asphalt.
Alexei heard his name called. He jumped up at once.
Anyuta stood before him. He recognised her immediately,
although she was not as pretty as she looked in the photo-
graph. Her face was pale and tired, and she wore a tunic
and top-boots, and an old, faded forage-cap perched on
her head. But her greenish, slightly bulging eyes looked
at Meresyev with such brightness and simplicity, they
radiated such friendship, that this girl, a stranger to him,
seemed to be an old acquaintance, as if they had played
in the same courtyard together as children.
For a moment, they gazed at each other in silence. At
last she said:
"I pictured you altogether different."
"How did you picture me?" asked Meresyev, feeling
unable to drive the not very appropriate smile from his
face....
"Well, how shall I put it? You know, heroic, tall and
strong. Yes, that's it, and a heavy jaw, like this, and, of
course, a pipe in your mouth-----Grisha wrote so much
about you!"